For some, childbirth is experienced with apprehension. For others, fear and anxiety surround this natural event, often leading to further traumatisation. This fear can be paralysing to the point of avoiding pregnancy altogether. In ‘Birth Reborn, What Childbirth Should Be’, Michel Odent wrote “One cannot help a normal physiological process. The point is not to hinder it”. Could this be the key to more comfortable, enjoyable births?
Studies suggest about 10 to 15% of women suffer depression, anxiety, or mental distress during their pregnancies¹. These issues, if not dealt with, cannot only affect the health of the mother, the father, but also the relationship between mother and child and impact on a child’s long-term mental health ².
Pregnancy is not without its emotional ups and downs but the third trimester can start to bring anxieties about the forthcoming labour and birth. During the final weeks anxieties and fears may increase. The physical discomforts can interrupt sleep and mums-to-be often experience feeling more vulnerable towards rejection, loss or insult at this time – usually these are offset by uplifting feelings too. But for some women, these emotions can become overwhelming and can lead to long labours and difficult births as fear impedes labour.
Whilst depression is thought to be associated with postnatal mothers, it is in fact, as common in pregnant women. Focus has been towards Postnatal Depression and has therefore meant that Antenatal Depression has been largely ignored, although evidence suggests that it is often the precursor to Postnatal Depression³. Antenatal Depression, occurring more commonly around 6 weeks before birth, can be accompanied by antenatal anxiety, and may predict birth complications such as premature delivery/low birth weight. If left undiagnosed, recognised or treated, Antenatal Depression may lead to Postnatal Depression.
Postnatal Depression, in its mild form, is often termed ‘baby blues’ and tends to occur a few days post birth. Up to 85% of new mothers feel emotional and tearful during a short period after birth and it is therefore considered quite normal and is generally manageable. However around 10-15% of new mothers develop a much deeper and longer-term depression, which tends to develop within 6 weeks of giving birth and develop gradually or suddenly. The symptoms include depression, fatigue, irritability, sadness and insomnia, can vary from mild to severe. Some fathers also experience these feelings too⁴.
Sufferers are often left feeling deeply afraid and anxious, having lost faith in the Health Care Professionals or Health Care system that was meant to be there to help them. Symptoms may persist for a long time and can result in Depression, although the two disorders have clinically different origins.
Previous experiences play a part in the stress-worry cycle and can compound when another pregnancy or birth is pending. Sufferers from post natal depression or general depression will be more at risk of potentially triggering the condition again. Birth was originally a natural ‘home’ event in this country until it started to be seen as a medical condition needing hospitalisation in the late ‘1950s’ when anaesthesia was introduced. However we have over medicalised the process, surrounding the mother-to-be with clinical strangers and made the environment cold, sterilised and too open, the experience now is often one of fear often leading to traumatic birthing experiences.
A great deal of research that shows mind-body techniques and hypnosis have a very positive effect on reducing the fears associated with childbirth, reducing labour lengths, the need for medical intervention and medication and providing new mothers with tools and techniques they can use to allow them to enjoy the experience of natural birth⁵. Births where the mother has been trained in hypnosis seem to progress naturally and without great need for interventions producing very healthy babies.
If we can give greater help, support and advice in the Antenatal period as well as providing a better understanding of the natural process of childbirth right through to the environment then we could alleviate a great degree of stress, anxiety and fear, allowing parents to be to have a much better experience and reducing the trauma that fear can trigger – preventing greater levels of anxiety developing to Postnatal Depression.